Type of Fellowship: General
Year of Fellowship: 2014
Diarmuid, what have you been doing these past few months?
On 31 October 2015 I had my last day as the CEO of Retrak after almost eight years. I am now on a few months break – which included fulfilling a lifelong aspiration to go diving in the Great Barrier Reef - before deciding what my next steps are. I think it is important to take a furlough, like all good farmers do with their land, to allow it to go fallow for a season, change the crops around and then when it is replanted it is refreshed and even more fruitful.
The break is a good opportunity to pause and reflect on all that I did and learned with Retrak, taking it from working with 800 street children and their communities, with a turnover of £300,000 a year and 18 staff, to working with 20,000 street children and their families, with a turnover of almost £2 million a year and 180 staff. We also increased the number of countries Retrak operated in from two countries in one continent, to ten countries in two continents. I leave Retrak with a globally respected reputation as leaders in the field, a very strong senior team, and a healthy bank balance. Not bad considering it was going out of business when I took it over!
I found it more challenging than I expected adjusting to life after Retrak. It is strange going from your inbox being constantly full with hundreds of emails to very few. All this means you ask healthy questions about the locus of your identity and purpose. Significantly the break has allowed me to step back, think a lot, evaluate and look at what is important. I am looking forward to whatever comes now, and feel very ready and excited about the next chapter. I hope that whatever I do next will be as fulfilling as working with Retrak’s wonderful staff team, the amazing street children and their families.
What has been your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge was dealing with a horrific accident in Uganda involving 28 children and two members of staff in October 2015 when I was still CEO of Retrak. I was initially told that seven children were dead, though thankfully this turned out to be incorrect - there were no fatalities. However, all 28 children were knocked down by a drunk driver and three children sustained very serious injuries, with one child needing to have his leg amputated.
In the aftermath of the accident dealing with the staff, children, hospitals and the justice system in Uganda was one of the toughest things I have ever had to do. It has left a deep impression on me in terms of a lesson around leadership - that is, as a leader sometimes your presence alone, because of who you are, is the only thing that is required by your colleagues as it encourages and strengthens them to get through the challenge at hand. I will though, find it difficult to forget the young boy who lost his leg when he asked me, ‘where is my leg, and will I ever walk again?’ His tenacity will always be an amazing inspiration to me.
What important lessons have you learned over the past few months?
I have learned that I need to deal with sadness and disappointment in a more constructive way as a leader. I also think that I would have found it much harder to leave Retrak without the Clore Social Leadership Fellowship broadening my horizons and allowing me to pursue the next stage of my journey. Learning how to look after myself has been the most beneficial, and will hopefully allow me to be more effective as a leader in the years ahead. I also realised that ending well is crucial when you move on from a leadership position, something I would not have appreciated without this experience. Succession planning is something we do not think and talk about enough in our sector.
Another important lesson I have picked up over the course of the Fellowship has been the ‘know yourself, be yourself, look after yourself’ section. It is critical in discharging your responsibility as a leader that you look after yourself in all areas - this also holds true for all the staff who work for you.
Tell us about an interaction you have had with another Fellow
An aspect of the Fellowship which has been of great personal value to me has been the learnings I have gained from the other Fellows. The weekend we had away together at the end of last year was immensely encouraging. It was helpful to see what others are doing and how they deal with the challenges of being in leadership role. It makes you realise that you are not alone, perhaps even more importantly, that you have a group of people who you can turn to for inspiration, support, fun, wisdom and encouragement.
Current principal role: Self employed management consultant
Current principal organisation: Various
Other leadership role 1: CEO
Other organisation 1: Retrak
Research: Is the Charity Sector fit for purpose?
Research topics: Campaigning; Charity; Finance; Fundraising; Governance; Impact; International; Leadership; Policy; Sustainability; Values;
Secondment host: Women for Women International